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The Key Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy, and Why Entrepreneurs Need to Know It

If you run a business of your own, it's essential you make the distinction. Here's how.

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Something bad has happened to all of us. The loss of a loved one, an illness, a car crash, or even smaller things like a missed concert or an argument with a partner. When these unfortunate events occur, it's normal for our friends, family or colleagues to reach out to us. But have you ever noticed that some responses leave us comforted and feeling heard, while others leave us feeling condescended upon or victimized?

Enter two words we hear a lot but often fail to distinguish: empathy and sympathy.

What’s the difference between empathy and sympathy?

Let’s start with the simpler of the two: sympathy. Sympathy is, put in the simplest terms, feeling sorry for another person. They are suffering and you pity them. You want them to be happier than they are currently. Sometimes this wish is laced with condescending overtones. Responses based in sympathy can leave a person feeling unheard or like a victim.

Sympathy is more than recognizing suffering, though. Dr. Conor Hogan Ph.D. specializes in entrepreneurial mindsets, building out specific programs to help improve them. In a recent Doc Conor video, he explained, “Empathy is the capacity to vicariously experience and understand another human being’s feelings … Empathy involves compassion through a shared experience.”

Someone practicing empathy doesn’t just see and feel sorry for someone else’s situation, he or she feels their emotions with them. When someone is grieving, an empathetic responder will grieve with them, for the same reasons. A person practicing empathy truly puts themselves “in the griever’s shoes."

As Brené Brown puts it, “Empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection.”

People want to feel heard and understood, not pitied.

Related: Why More ‘Emotional Intelligence’ Means More Money for Entrepreneurs

Why is empathy important to our society?

Empathy helps people create connections with others and promotes pro-social behaviors like generosity, kindness and, in the medical field, patient-centeredness. It is motivation for altruism. When people feel empathetic, they are more likely to help others.

Instead of pitying earthquake victims, a person who is practicing empathy will donate money, supplies or their time to help. Leaders who are empathetic can understand and help those they lead. Having empathetic leaders helps decrease suffering and increase happiness and comfort among citizens, employees and community members.

Why is empathy important to entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneurs need team members who know what they’re doing and are doing it in the best way possible. Team members can’t do this if the man or the woman at the top is unwilling to empathize with them.

What do they need to have a better work experience? How can they be helped to feel and act their most productive? What obstacles are standing in the way of a good day’s work, be it the office culture, management or the physical desk they sit at, which is too close to the air-conditioning vent?

Entrepreneurs also need to empathize in order to understand and beat the competition.

First, entrepreneurs must know their would-be customers. A good salesman anticipates people’s needs. Target demographics must be refined and researched, but not only that, they need to be empathized with. This will help the entrepreneur to understand what the customer is truly looking for and how they want to find it.

For example, someone who lost a loved one is probably not looking for a flashy television commercial to tell them where to buy a casket. The entrepreneur can empathize with this situation to find a more suitable way to introduce his or her products and services.

A good entrepreneur will also be able to empathize with the competition. What successes are they celebrating, what worries them at night? It’s impossible to compete with someone or something of which you have no understanding.

Related: What Is Empathy and Why Is It So Important for Great Leaders?

How can someone develop more empathy?

With all its benefits, it’s a relief to know that empathy can be learned and practiced. In one study, female nurses were found to have significantly higher levels of empathy for patients after completing an empathy-training course. And what sort of things might they teach in such a course? If they listened to Brown at all, they likely studied four steps to being a better practice of empathy.

Up first is perspective-taking. You must be able to put yourself into the other person’s shoes. Second, staying out of judgment. You can’t truly empathize with someone if you are too busy judging them. Third, recognizing emotion in other people. And fourth, communicating that emotion. You need to see and replicate what the other person is feeling to be truly empathetic.

In another study, nursing students in the intervention group were asked to participate in an immersive digital story aimed to increase empathy while the control group did not participate. At the end of the study, those who participated had an immediate, measurable increase in empathy.

Little research has been done on the effects of empathy training in other workplaces, but if it works in a hospital, it seems no large stretch to believe similar trainings would work in your workplace.

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